Sisterhood of the Dress VI – Dress Worn!

Long time readers know about one of APW’s pet projects: The Sisterhood of the Traveling Dress. This project started years ago when there were far fewer of us hanging around these parts, and it involved readers passing dresses, one to the other. It was one of my very favorite things in APW-land, but like all good things, it eventually needed to wind to a close. A few dresses were shared and loved, but far more often the idea of sharing a dress was more powerful than the difficult reality of sharing a dress, and tears were shed. So, to bring the series home, I’m honored to bring you Rachel and Jenn (whose new paper venture is over here), talking about the dress they shared, and loved. And just a warning. This one might not be safe for work. I cried when I least expected to…

Jenn: APW and The Sisterhood changed my life and shaped my wedding. And I stumbled across it by accident, after a small misunderstanding with my photographer.

I found my photographer (sponsor Jenn Link) on another wedding website. When I emailed to contact her, she thought I had said I found her on APW, and offered me the APW special price for that year. Because this was better than my wildest dreams, I decided to take a gander at this website she mentioned, so that I could honestly say I had seen her over there too… and the rest is history for me.

I read the whole archives that first weekend, and it was just like a cartoon lightbulb came on over my head. I think many people here feel the same way, but across the ocean in London, feeling alone and swamped by how much everything would cost (and yet could still look tacky) APW felt like a shining beacon cutting through the fog of WIC bullsh*t. I finally experienced the delicious freedom to let go of everything the WIC wanted to sell me, but I knew I didn’t need.

The first week after I started reading, Meg ran a post on venue chairs, and why it seemed to be one thing sensible women were still willing to spend money to upgrade, despite the obvious unimportance. When I left a comment about how much I hated my venue’s pepto pink chairs, but didn’t know my sensible side could bring myself to rent new ones, Liz left a comment telling me she was happy for me to borrow the chair covers she had bought for her wedding. And then a few weeks after that, Rachel’s post arrived, giving away her dress.

I put myself forward after a long debate, with both myself and my friends/family. I wondered if I would regret not having the experience of “finding the one” with my mom, surrounded by loving bridesmaids, I wondered if I would regret that it was only about 50% like what I had envisioned wearing, I wondered if it was the right size, I wondered if it would even look good on me… there were a lot of doubts. But the buttons—they were just so beautiful! Rachel looked graceful and elegant wearing it, but not in a fussy way, which is how I wanted to be. And also, she partied hard in it, and it was still standing. So I decided to go for it—what was the worst that could happen?

A few months later when I moved back to DC from London, I met with Rachel (and also Sarah) for the hand-off. We had a few beers, got to know each other a tiny bit, and took some immortal Polaroids (with Rachel’s actual Polaroid camera, not just an iPhone app) where I have my eyes closed. Once I got the dress home though…I put it on, with great difficulty, and knew I could not wear it in that form. It barely fit me—I felt like a little sausage in a casing, and could definitely not breathe. I really didn’t like the bows on the front and back, as I felt like they didn’t suit me, and I wondered if I would get to a point where I actually liked the dress, or could sit down while wearing it.

I agonized for a few weeks. I didn’t know if I could slim down to fit into the dress; I didn’t know that I even wanted to. I felt this enormous responsibility to Rachel, who I was still getting to know, and I didn’t want to cause any heartbreak for either of us. I also really really didn’t want to go dress shopping—at least half of my brain had fully checked into the notion that I had just received a dress for free thankyouverymuch. I felt guilty that I was even considering scrapping the dress that someone had given to me—who was I to decide now that it didn’t work for me? I was beating myself up, but I really wanted to stay true to me without hurting any feelings.

I don’t know at what point exactly my mindset changed. I found some gorgeous blue satin ribbon at PaperSource one day, and I had Sarah come over to look at how we could alter the dress, to see if there was enough room in there. And we just went for it: we cut off the little bows. (I still have those little bows, somewhere in the mess of my room at my parents’ house.) And she told me there was plenty of room to let out the waist if I needed, and that of course we could do the lace and ribbon waist belt that I wanted, and wouldn’t it be cool if we used all that extra lace ($7 total on Etsy) as a little ruffle at the hem?

And so the months went by, and we had some bookclubs, and Rachel asked if anyone would be interested in kickboxing with her in a local class. I decided to give it a go, and before I knew it 9 months and -25lbs later, I realized she had given me way more than a dress. Oh, and then also? She did the whole day-of coordination for my wedding, no big deal. Perhaps if I pay for her firstborn’s college education I’ll be able to make it up to her. (Or I am available for dogsitting in the meantime? …Just saying.)

After all of Sarah’s hard work, a few weeks before the wedding the dress was ready, and I knew I didn’t have any more doubts. Of course there were dozens more dresses I could have worn that would have worked equally well, but those dresses don’t matter because I didn’t have them, and this particular dress was a part of something bigger. I didn’t even trip on it walking down the aisle—it was clearly meant to be. For those interested in the bottom line, in the end my dress cost $12 in materials, plus a KitchenAid mixer (my gift to Sarah for doing the alterations), and a few beers.

On my wedding day, when Rachel came in to see me after the ceremony, I was actually really nervous: Would she hate what I had done to the dress? Did she feel weird to see someone else wearing it? Was she happy it’s finally over? And then we took a picture together to send to Meg and you guys, and the rest of the wedding happened, and as I am typing this I realized I still don’t know. Because even if she felt conflicted about seeing me in the dress, Rachel is way too polite to say so, on any day of the week let alone on my wedding day. So I have to hope that it was ok, because that’s the beauty of the sisterhood, in a way: it forces you to let go, because someone else did the hard part of picking the dress. And I will tell you, I got more compliments on the dress than on any other aspect of the wedding. Better, most of the compliments were that the dress was “so perfect for me.”

As part of her welcome speech at the reception, my mom had a special part for you guys, which I will paraphrase/shorten because I was emotionally occupied and don’t remember all of it:

And a big thanks to all the APW ladies, for showing Jenn that this wedding was possible, and especially to Rachel.

And I do thank each and every one of you, and especially Rachel.

Rachel: I was hesitant about writing something for this post, because it felt to me like I have had my say here, and it’s Jenn’s time now. But what really convinced me was reading what she planned to say to you all, and I couldn’t let it go without answering her question. Without exaggeration, I was totally, totally over the moon excited for Jenn on her wedding day. Partly I was excited because I freaking love weddings, and I was just giddy for her that it was finally here and she and Brandon were finally married. But I was also truly excited and happy to see my dress again, though it was not my dress anymore, in more ways than one. She has no idea how much of a gift it was for me, to see it loved again.

I knew that she was anxious about the ways she changed it, and I still have no idea how to make her believe I am not just being polite. Did I involuntarily wince at the thought of snipping off the bows? Of course. But my dress, as it was the day I got married in it, can’t be altered. It still exists the way it was and will always be, in my memory, and in my husband’s memory, in the hearts and minds of all our guests that day (and of course, on Facebook, forever). Once I got over the initial shock, it seemed absolutely natural and right for her to alter it to her own style; wearing a dress that made her feel like not herself would have completely defeated the purpose and spirit of the offering.

I was a new “baby bride” when Erika thought up the first dress giveaway, and it blew my mind a little bit. I didn’t know then if I could ever bring myself to give away my dress, but I hoped I could. When the time came, it was easier than I expected, maybe because I had prepared myself for over a year for the possibility, I’d seen so many giveaways happen and there was always so much joy. By the time I handed over the dress, wrapped up and distorted by dry cleaner plastic, there was a tiny bit of heartache and more emotions than I could put words to, but mostly I was just happy and excited, and hoping I wouldn’t die of anticipation over the fifteen months till her wedding. I never dreamed I’d get to be involved in her actual wedding day, but being able to be there and see it all for myself was honestly a huge (huge) gift.

Photos by: Jenn’s wedding photos by Jenn Link Photography (except the one of Jenn and Rachel together), Rachel’s wedding photo by Bong Lee of Bisou Photography

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  • This is so lovely. My wedding is a little less than two months away, and I have often wondered whether I will have the guts when it is over to pass my dress along to another. I hope that I will. You both look so beautiful and happy in the dress — what a wonderful gift you have given to each other.

  • PA

    A gorgeous post – both of you looked so beautiful in the dress, and it was wonderful how the dress was altered and to suit both of you! I love the bows AND the ribbon-and-lace. Really touching, thank you for sharing your story!

    (And, as someone 6 months into my own changing-the-way-I-eat-and-exercise thing, it’s great to hear a shout out from someone who’s done the same!)

  • mimi

    Gorgeous dress (both ways), gorgeous brides, and a great story! Is there a way to bring back the Sisterhood?

    • Ariel

      I would totally give my dress away if there were

      • I was hanging out to give away mine… Oh well. I might yet find a way!

      • I am sad too. I have a sisterhood dress (and have so much love for my giver too!). I’m hoping to write a graduate post here soon, when we get the pictures back and a twee bit more distance. And I was also hoping to give my dress away again, as I would love to see it continue to be worn and appreciated.

  • Liz

    This just lifts my heart up and makes me want to sing! Team Practical is changing the world for the better!

    Viva Team Practical!

  • I love everything about this post.

  • Rachel

    The Sisterhood is such a beautiful thing and this post shows exactly why. Not only does it make me want to experience the same thing (either in receiving or giving my dress) but it makes me want to include APW in a speech at my someday-wedding.

    Is it just me or do Jenn and Rachel look like sisters?! Like real, actual, sisters? I had to do a double take of the two of them for the photo at the wedding.

    Thanks for sharing your stories!

  • Jenn, again, thank you. <3

    I just recently got a bunch of holga rolls developed, and clearly they had been piling up a while because one of the photos was from our dress exchange! If I'd been thinking I'd have sent it to you before now, but it's now on my tumblr (linked in my name on this comment).

    • love that photo.

  • Moz

    That picture of Rachel at her wedding is one of my all time favourite images on the site.

    You’re both awesome. Continue on ladies!

  • Kathryn

    I love the buttons and little bows on Rachel. I thought the dress in her graduate post was gorgeous AND I love the blue ribbon and lace at the bottom that Sarah made for Jenn. I also have to say, I loved kickboxing with both of them (until I had to stop to get ready for my half). DC APW is pretty awesome :)

    I’m “stealing” Rachel’s venue (at her suggestion). It’s the wedding that keeps on giving!

  • Woow, this is some real APW magic and I am so happy for everyone, it is contagious.
    Rachel , I love your dress as it was with the bows and Jenn, I love how you altered it. (Congratulations on a GREAT job Sarah ). The lace, the blue ribbon, it is so perfect. It is nice to see how a little bit of this and a little bit of that can make the dress “fit” you (and without spending millions on extra accessories). The dress looked great on both of you because it suited each of you perfectly.
    But most of all it is great to see how friendships are born and grow through this community… it is just amazing. (So thanks Mag for being like a fairy and spreading the magic around). I can’t stop smiling.

  • I just love this more than I can say.

  • Kat

    I’m thrilled to see a Sisterhood of the Dress graduate post! I’ve been waiting to see people wear the amazing dresses they received for ages :)
    Like others above, I loved the dress when I saw it offered and I love the alterations too – you can still see the original dress there, but changed to suit just perfectly!

  • April

    Gaaaaahhh – *SOBBING* But I’m also cheering, because I just luuuuurve a happy ending. And this one is just full of happy goodness. Well done, Ladies! XO

  • You both make my heart so happy. Love.

  • CAMinSD

    Man, I love that dress. Twice! Perfect post except for the part where I learn the Sisterhood has been…decentralized*. I’ve been fantasizing about giving mine away once I’m done with it!

    *Sisterhoods do *not* dissolve.

    • This – I’ve been struggling with this! I so wanted to give the dress away again. What I’m doing instead is attempting to go the route, donating the proceeds after dry cleaning to Brides Against Breast Cancer. If no one ends up wanting it, I’ll just donate the dress directly. I figure they get a reasonable number of dresses, but maybe not so many cash donations to help with their overhead. Plus, I like the idea of sending the dress on to another person, and not just out into the void…

      • April

        While there is something truly wonderful about personally gifting your gown to another Bride, it’s not without its own set of issues either. Sounds like your plans for donating the $$$ from the sale of your dress ticks all the right boxes in the spirit of giving! Best wishes!

      • Hils

        Hey Jenn/Carnegie Buddy!

        I’m in the same mental space with my dress — and I really like your solution. I want to sell/give it to someone who wants this specific dress, but couldn’t afford it full price, but I feel guilty taking the money for it. But your donation idea makes all of that work… Yay!

        • Hillary! Are you coming on Monday? I can’t wait to hear all about your wedding!!

          • Hils

            I’ll be there, Jenn! Looking forward to catching up!

  • Ana Maria

    I ♥ the Sisterhood of the Traveling Dress!! And I ♥ APW!! I am so happy for you both.

  • This is absolutely wonderful.

  • This is so, so good to read.

    I kind of feel like I snuck into the sisterhood with the alterations … but I’m so glad I did. Getting to be a part of helping Jenn create a dress she loved was just wonderful.

    Thanks again for letting me be a part of it, ladies!

  • I also would like to bring back The Sisterhood of the Traveling Dress. I have no real attachment to my wedding gown: it brought me joy for a day, why can’t it do the same thing for someone else?

  • This is why a year and a half after my wedding, I’m still hanging around this place: posts like these. I love this community so much. I loved the dress on Rachel, and I love that Jenn made it her own so beautifully.

  • Oh this is post is just filled so much with love. I love when women can find each other through the amazing power of the internet and support each other like this. Building, creating, sharing. Amazing.

  • Alyssa

    Love, love, love, love this post. Has there ever been discussion of setting up an APW message board and exchange forum? Letting the sisterhood grow in multiple directions not only through dresses, but other wedding wares? I’d love to pass along some of the love from my own wedding after it happens this August!

  • Jenn's Mom

    After Meg’s warning I thought it was safe to read this post since I’m on vacation today – then my boss calls me right when I’m all teared up. What can I say?

    Emotions aside I have to say that wedding dress shopping with your Mom is way overrated and I’m really glad we turned things around and went shopping for the “Mother of the bride “dress instead!

    And Rachel and Sara – many thanks again – see you Monday.

  • love this post :X

  • Rizubunny

    Love this! And…are those Fluevogs in the last picture?

  • Red

    Oh, I know I was warned that this post was NSFW, but geez! I thought I could handle it without crying, but not so much.

    Rachel, your dress find is amazing and even more so because the dress was able to be “the one” for not one, but two brides. Not to mention that a wedding dress allowed for friendships to be formed. That’s pretty powerful stuff. Jenn, the changes you made to the dress really made it appear as if the dress was made for you but in the same note, it honors the dress it was (if that makes any sense).

    You ladies are amazing and beautiful and I wish you nothing but happiness in both of your marriages.

    Yay Team Practical!

    And I agree, The Sisterhood should live on in some form

  • Jo

    This is my fave thing about APW: the community.

  • Ivie

    So inspiring. And I think it is really interesting what both Jenn and Rachel had to say about the alterations – years ago my mum gave me a dress that she had had when she was younger. I wore it to a college ball, had a brilliant night – and, oh yes, before going had it altered to sleeveless and fitted across the bust. It looked great – but I felt so bad afterwards when I saw that she was upset that I had got it changed. I realise now that it wasn’t that she was annoyed at me – but that it was a sort of dream for her to see me in her dress. The dress itself became more important as than the time I would have in it. I still feel bad about altering the dress – but I treasure the night I danced away in it. Generosity must be matched with understanding.

  • Kate

    Can I ask why the Sisterhood is ending? Isn’t this exactly what APW is supposed to be all about??

  • Krista

    Beautiful. This post is beautiful. This dress is beautiful (both ways!!) These ladies are so beautiful!
    What an incredible post. I love APW!

  • Claire

    Lovely story!

    My own daughter found the “perfect” dress in a consignment shop (never worn) for a fraction of what it would have been new. And it had little sleeves and not much train, instead of what they were selling new–no sleeves and a huge train!

    We had it cleaned and it’s hanging in the closet. I think it’s time to pass it on somehow!

  • I was a little afraid of donating my dress as well, but this is so true: “. . . my dress, as it was the day I got married in it, can’t be altered. It still exists the way it was and will always be, in my memory, and in my husband’s memory, in the hearts and minds of all our guests that day (and of course, on Facebook, forever).”

    Well, except for that Facebook part, cuz I’m not down with it.

    But yes, it does feel like it was perfect for me at the time, and I’m ready to send it on and make someone else happy. Couldn’t have said it better.

  • Chrissy

    I did cry when I least expected to. So many emotions and expectations are tied to each aspect of the wedding, in particular the dress. This dress sharing story was inspiring and reminded me that in the end, my personality and that of my fiance will be reflected in the parts of the day that matter to us.

    I’m just beginning my wedding plans, and already I feel overwhelmed and discouraged. I purchased APW, the book, last week and have already re-read chapters and found solace and comfort in its words.